Black Mirror’s Abyss Stares Back


Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Characters Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis, right) begin a relationship that will undergo the test of time in “San Junipero,” the fourth of six new episodes in season three of Netflix’s Black Mirror.

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Science fiction has always been fascinated by the cost of progress. Legendary genre writer Isaac Asimov’s pioneering I, Robot explored the murky line between artificial intelligence and humanity, proving that some of our deepest fears can be extracted by plumbing the uncanny valley. Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ Twilight Zone-esque television show examining that Asimovian divide, uses chillingly plausible technological advancements to paint visions of futures gone awry. Better described as a series of short films, the show’s third season premiered on Netflix last Friday, marking a transition from the BBC and featuring an expanded six-episode run over the previous seasons’ three. For devoted fans, any worries about overt Americanization or thinly-stretched inspiration should be dispelled — each of the new films represents Black Mirror at its best.

Broadly speaking, the new season scores high marks for variety. It features a dark road-trip comedy, a psychological horror twist-fest, an unrelentingly tense thriller, an ’80s romance, a mutant apocalypse war yarn and a feature-length detective procedural. Paired with the myriad offerings of previous seasons, Black Mirror sits among the most original series of all time, reinventing itself at every turn even as it threatens to converge on similar themes. It would be easy to say the show is about the dark side of technology, but that description risks underselling the series’ complexity. Brooker, who penned the majority of the episodes and held creative control over the ones he didn’t write, will be the first to clarify that he has nothing against technology; in fact, his feelings are quite the opposite. A former video game journalist, Brooker’s affinity for Black Mirror’s tech contributes not only to its painstakingly realistic design, but also to the show’s focus on the human tendency to misuse it. If Black Mirror had a thesis, it would be that technology is the most seductive kind of power.

One area where season three excels over past seasons is in tone. While a cold, painful, slow burn of an audiovisual experience could be expected from previous episodes, the new season lends each film its own aesthetic. The first episode, “Nosedive,” tells the story of a world consumed by a social media super-app (think Community’s “MeowMeowBeans,” but bigger) through a pastel color palette that accentuates the artificiality of it all. On the other hand, “Shut Up and Dance” is bathed in filth, a visual representation of the depths to which the narrative is willing to dive for its unforgettable final reveal. Other episodes run the gamut from CGI spectacle to exquisite period detail; it’s a joy to watch as Black Mirror visually — and thematically — adapts itself to each story’s reality.

If anything changed as a result of Black Mirror’s move to Netflix, it’s the scope of the showrunners’ ambition. With an increased budget, the show is capable of elevating the elaborate nature of the worlds it creates. Brooker’s work as screenwriter on season one’s finest episode, “15 Million Merits,” proved his ability to craft a compelling alternate reality, and since only half of this season’s films are set in realities comparable to our own, he’s given free reign to put his world-building skills to the test.

Beneath the gloss and grime, the show’s inescapable pull comes from its writing. Gifted with the ability to poke holes in its own stories and fill them, this season’s narratives each pack that signature all-too-real Black Mirror punch that longtime fans are now familiar with. It’s a hard feeling to get anywhere else, knowing the rug could be pulled out in a million different ways at any given moment. The stories this show spins are all crafted like mousetraps, and their inevitable twists are the cheese that draws viewers in. But this season’s particular strength lies in its willingness to subvert expectations for what an episode of Black Mirror should be. Any anthology series risks losing audience engagement by recycling its messages or storytelling style, and if a general complaint could be leveled at earlier seasons, it’s that the show’s “gotcha” attitude can feel too self-satisfied and formulaic.

Season three escapes this cycle through deft narrative maneuvering, investing doubly in its characters and focusing on the consequences of their decisions. There’s no invisible technological hand here guiding people into moral depravity — season three, in keeping with the series’ message, asserts that we’re the ones abusing technology, not the other way around. Many of its films grapple with the dualistic nature of our online and real-world personas, treating tech as a realm in which we act without considering the reactive cost. The most potent moments of the season, as in the unforgettable “San Junipero” and the thrillingly inventive “Hated in the Nation,” come when those reactions become physical.

Black Mirror would have few physical consequences for us were it not for the weight of its performances. A strong suit of the series since the very first episode, season three’s casting is exemplary across the board. Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of an aspiring socialite’s downward spiral in “Nosedive” stays believable even at its most absurd extremes, a feat that will hopefully propel the Jurassic World star to further fame. And up-and-comer Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s sob-inducing turn in “San Junipero” stands out as a highlight of the season, swirling together a young woman’s desire for what she repeatedly calls “a good time” with the bruised wisdom of someone far beyond her years. Newcomer James Watkins joins Game of Thrones veteran Jerome Flynn in “Shut Up and Dance,” and the former, with his arresting depiction of a teenage boy forced to obey the whim of an anonymous force, will have a hard time overshadowing this character in an invariably sterling future career. Finally, special mention must be given to Malachi Kirby’s soldier in “Men Against Fire,” who deftly swings from apathy to empathy as he becomes privy to the disturbing nature of his war.

The season’s faults are few and come as a result of its insistence on nailing down a message. Some episodes can be heavy-handed in their efforts to make the endgame clear, and plot points occasionally overstay their welcome; the show is at its finest when twists are explained less, and a few of the films are guilty of both telling and showing.

Black Mirror exists to spin stories about the potential pitfalls of technological advances, and in that capacity, this season succeeds wildly. But what makes season three special is its refusal to settle for just being Black Mirror; it seeks increased narrative complexity, stronger characters and a more sumptuous visual spectacle than before. Though its stories could push for just a bit more nuance, its convergence of those three strengths with the show’s innate philosophical trappings makes season three of Black Mirror a singular season of television and one that should not be missed.